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Two Girls with Their Shelties - Victorian Images

Victorian art showing two little girls with their best friends

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The Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends

So, Henry has been to see me. Henry from the past, Henry from the Ancients, Henry from Richmond, Henry the Hiker, Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., who vanished ten years ago. And being with Henry is the biggest and best thing in my life, and I can’t talk about it.

Girl with art project

Marianna in fourth grade

Oh, I can talk to Mama and Daddy, and Sister Alma Rose, but then I have to go to school and act like I’m interested that Kevin Olander has been walking Marianna Dempsey home after cheerleading. Well, that’s actually not a very good example of trivial junior-high gossip, because I AM sort of interested, because Kevin Olander is very cute and very shy, and Marianna is a real sweetheart and we were inseparable in fourth grade, when we had the same teacher, and she is that rare specimen of junior-high girl who is truly kind and neither knows nor cares what people, in general, think of her.

Sister Alma Rose gives me assignments, and the one I’m working on right now is what she calls the Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends. “It takes a little bit of effort to keep up y’all’s friendships with youngsters* y’all don’t run into regularly,” she said, “not counting Pablo, who’s always around. But keep a-hold of those who love and don’t compete with y’all, and the other way ’round, by which I mean y’all want them to be happy and don’t begrudge them their successes. Those friendships are rare, and they’re sacred.”

Sometimes it’s just a real treat to listen to Sister Alma Rose talk.

Peter the Creep

Marianna is the friend I cherish most when I’m feeling… I don’t know the right word— not “excluded,” because I’m the one who’s avoiding people— “separate,” maybe, like I’m 12 going on 57, when I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about spiritual stuff, and meditating especially intensely, and none of this is of interest to my other school friends, not even Pablo.

Marianna is a Christian Scientist and totally into spirituality. She sees everyone as a perfect child of a perfect God who does not create imperfection. But she doesn’t take herself too seriously. I mean, she takes Christian Science seriously, because she’s seen and experienced all these amazing healings, but she says, very dryly, “Fanny, you might find this hard to believe, but I don’t always manifest perfect love.”

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

Then she giggles. “I really have to work at seeing Peter Gaines as a perfect child of God.” She doesn’t say “Peter the Creep,” which everyone calls him because he’s just creepy. Whenever there’s a fire drill, he makes sure he’s one of the first kids out so he can stand under the iron-bar steps that are the fire escapes and look up girls’ skirts until one of the teachers makes him go stand across the street in the practice field, which is where we’re supposed to go. And he’s been seen a bunch of times standing outside girls’ houses at night, being a peeping Tom with these high-dollar binoculars he has, including Marianna’s house.

The rest of the time he’s just there, not talking to anyone, sort of shuffling to his classes, and, in each of them, effortlessly committing every spoken and written word to memory and always getting straight A’s. Marianna tried to talk to him once, asking him a question about the subjunctive mood or something, which they were studying in their English class, and he just stared at  her with distaste, “like I was a particularly loathsome beetle,” she said.

Something so heinous

Sunny Victorian parlor

She and I talked to Sister Alma Rose about him one day when we went to her house after school seeking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incredible limeade.

“How can someone that intelligent be that clueless?” I asked.

“There has to be a reason for a boy to be so warped at such a young age,” she said, “but this is how sex offenders start out. They don’t just change from healthy into sick human beings when they’re 30.”

Sister Alma Rose made us pray for him — I mean, we wanted to, and we did, silently, for quite a while. It was hard at first, because he was, after all, Peter the Creep, and I couldn’t get past that until I thought of him as a newborn, a gurgling infant, a toddler, taking those first, unsteady steps, all bright eyes and wondering at the big, wide world, and reminded myself that his true self was still that fresh and innocent.

I was sure that Sister Alma Rose would go and talk to his parents, and, of course, she did, and they are just regular nice people— they own the sheet-music and musical-instrument store in Hillside— and they were “concerned” about both Peter and his older sister, Alice, who, it turns out, was bulimic, though her parents didn’t know that until after. I can only imagine what family dinners were like at their house. But Peter and Alice were getting good grades and their parents convinced themselves that the kids were just “going through a phase.”

WAKE UP, MOMS AND DADS! Your 12-year-old son has no friends and has no interests and he is a zombie most of the time. Your teenage daughter is five-foot-five and weighs 87 pounds. IS ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION HERE?

Well, after a lot of gentle but persistent pressure on Sister Alma Rose’s part, a lot of patient conversations with Peter and Alice, and a lot of just plain snooping, Sister Alma Rose uncovered something so heinous I don’t even know how to put it into words… so disturbing that she would tell Marianna and me about it only with our parents’ permission and with our parents actually with us, gathered in our cheerful, sunny living room.

Okay, here goes

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Peter and Alice have an aunt and uncle — their mom’s brother and his wife — who are called Hector and Carol Mote and who owned the music store in La Mesa. When the music store in Hilltop came available, the Motes urged the Gaineses to buy it and move from Chicago to Hilltop— which, they assured Mr. and Mrs. Gaines, was such a picturesque small town… so wholesome, so much safer than Chicago.

The Motes’ store was much bigger and busier than the Gaineses’ in Hilltop, because of there being a music college in La Mesa, so the Motes “hired” Peter and Alice, and paid them well, to “help in the stock room” on Saturdays, starting when Peter was 9 and Alice was 10.

But they didn’t work in the stock room. They “worked” in the plush master bedroom of the Motes’ house behind the store, where they not only were sexually abused(1) by the Motes but also were forced to do things with each other, which kindly Uncle Hector recorded on video,(2) and he sold the videos to people all over the world, which made it an FBI matter (also a matter for the U.S. Customs Service and possibly Interpol!) when Sister Alma Rose blew the whistle.

Pretty little red-haired girl with freckles

Me, Fanny

“How could they force them?” Marianna asked, and her voice sounded so strange that my eyes, which had been glued to Sister Alma Rose, slid over to Marianna, looking like a wounded bird between her mom and dad, and her mom had her arm around Marianna’s shoulders and was stroking her hair, and her dad looked dangerous, like an angry wolf might look protecting its cub. Or do wolves have pups? Anyway, Marianna was holding tight to her dad’s hand and very quietly sobbing her heart out.

“With threats,” Sister Alma Rose said gently, “to tell the children’s folks all sorts of lies— that they had caught the children together in bed, or that Alice had seduced her uncle— that kind of thing. And y’all need to understand that the abuse had been going on, during family visits, since before Peter and Alice were even in kindergarten.”

I made it to the bathroom just in time to lose the lunch I was wishing I hadn’t eaten. When I was done retching, Mama cleaned my sweaty face with a warm washcloth and got the mouthwash out of the cabinet. She looked a question at me, and I said, “No, I want to hear the rest.” I rinsed the bad taste out of my mouth as well as I could and went into the living room and sat down on the love seat next to Mama. Daddy, on the other side of me in “Only His” Chair, gave my shoulders a squeeze and handed me a peppermint. What a dad!

Then Marianna and I both started laughing. It wasn’t hysteria, it was our mutual realization— through some kind of cosmic connection, I guess, but it was as clear as a fingersnap— that we’d both been expelling toxins, Marianna washing them away with tears and I upchucking them out. Sorry, but that’s what it was.

Why friendships are sacred

Okay, so now, as I write this, the Motes are in prison, “but folks like them ain’t safe in or out of the penitentiary,” Sister Alma Rose said. She rarely says ain’t any more unless she’s “in a state,” and I was pretty sure she wasn’t losing any sleep over whatever peril the Motes might be facing.

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Peter and Alice were long gone, even before our family conclave. Mama told me that the Gaineses’ house had been sold, as had both of the music stores, and Mr. and Mrs. Gaines were moving to Lexington, Kentucky, where Mr. Gaines’s parents and brothers lived with their families.

“But where are the kids?” I asked, wondering what kind of counseling could erase all those years of abuse and shame and secrecy.

“They’re in the best place they could possibly be,” Mama said with a wistful smile, “the most beautiful place in the world, a place where you take in healing and kindness and wholesomeness with every breath. They’re in Daylight.”

I knew where she meant, the place where the Ancients live when they’re not Out in the World, but I’d never heard it given a name (Henry just says, “up the mountain”), and I’d also never heard of anyone going there who wasn’t from the Ancients, and I told Mama that, and she smiled that wistful smile again.

“I was there,” she said simply. “After my father died, and Mama drank herself to death in front of my eyes and I went to pieces, Daddy Pete took me up. You’ll go yourself, of course, probably sooner rather than later, and you’ll never want to leave, but you’ll know you can go up there whenever you need to, and you’ll be full of zeal to come back and help mend the broken world.”

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

A week or so after our gathering, Sister Alma Rose gave a little party in honor of Marianna and me. It was just the three of us and Mr. Truman LaFollette, but we devoured baked salmon and tender asparagus spears and Sister Alma Rose’s famous fruit salad that’s like dessert, and warm, dark homemade bread, and then we had dessert, chocolate mousse so rich that the small piece was almost more than I could handle, although I can pretty much always find room for more chocolate.

Then Sister Alma Rose explained how Marianna’s and my friendship had started something that would bless the world for a very long time. I thought that was giving it more than its due, and started to say so, but Sister Alma Rose shushed me.

“The two of y’all was thrown together in fourth grade,” she said, “but you’ve gone out of your way to keep on being friends. Now, if y’all weren’t who you are, y’all would have paid no attention to Peter Gaines. He was easy to ignore, like everybody else did. Marianna, y’all made an effort to see him for what he is, a perfect child of God. Even so, if y’all hadn’t talked about him with each other, and then come to me, Peter Gaines and his sister probably would have fallen through the cracks. The parents are in denial, nobody else notices or cares, and those youngsters grow up and they’re just full of poison.

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

“Now, think not only of them and the hell their lives would have been,” she went on, “but think of the people who might have been harmed by them but who won’t be, now, because of y’all. Think of Peter and Alice’s parents, who will recover because their children got help before someone else was hurt. Think of them two in prison, who won’t be brutalizing any more innocents. And think of all the circles of lives around these, like ripples. Poison travels fast and far.”

“But it’s not like we did something hard or made any sacrifices,” Marianna protested.

“Y’all made a choice,” said Sister Alma Rose, taking Marianna’s hand, and, Lord, I hoped she wouldn’t squeeze it and turn those delicate bones into little bitty Chiclets. “Instead of taking the path of least resistance, y’all chose to notice, to pray, and to act. Poison travels fast,” she repeated, “but love travels faster.”

I decided to wait for another time, when we weren’t celebrating, to ask Marianna and Sister Alma Rose if they were able to see the Motes as God’s perfect, innocent children. It’s still hard for me to use the words love and Peter Gaines in the same sentence. But I guess we did what Marianna calls “the loving thing,” and that, it seems, can change more than just our little corner of the world….

*The first time Sister Alma Rose referred to my friends and me as youngsters, I tried to explain that the only adults who use words like youngster are those who have little or no rapport with kids, which is definitely not the case with Sister Alma Rose. She laughed and said we’re lucky she doesn’t call us younglings, which was au courant before the seventeenth century, when youngster came into general use.

(1) Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as ‘friends’ of the family, babysitters, or neighbors…. Wikipedia

(2) Children of all ages, including infants, are abused in the production of pornography internationally. The United States Department of Justice estimates that pornographers have recorded the abuse of more than one million children in the United States alone. —Wikipedia

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Will Guilt Make You Good? (conclusion)

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Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Skellig2008 via Flickr

Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Skellig2008 via Flickr

Every Tiny Leaf

This, as I have said, is a true story, and, as I hope you will recall from Part 1 of this story, because I am NOT not going to explain THE ENTIRE EPISODE all over again, Sister Alma Rose and her friend Elizabeth Anna Stratton (who is 65 years old) and I went to the 7:30 a.m. service at the Presbyterian church last month because Elizabeth Anna is trying to decide whether she wants to come back to Hilltop and live in the wonderful house in the country that she inherited from her parents, who are deceased…

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

…and the minister giving the sermon, who I hope is just an interim minister whose term of service ended yesterday, because if she is not, the only people left at the Presbyterian church are going to be the hard-of-hearing, no disrespect intended, inasmuch as the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell is the kind of minister who preaches austerity out of the left side of her mouth while the right side is practicing conspicuous consumption at Bergdorf Goodman, otherwise maybe I could buy into the guilt trip she was laying on the…

…“complacent middle class,” which is pretty much all of Hilltop — …[while] families are being driven from their homes and living in filthy camps where children starve, and little boys are being abducted to fight in revolutions they don’t understand, and young men and women are smoking crack cocaine, and mothers are selling their daughters into prostitution in exchange for money to feed their addictions

and maybe I could drop everything and go take care of all that, and still arrive before the bell on Monday morning at Hilltop Elementary School, where I am in seventh grade — IF the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell had, herself, not been wearing six or seven hundred dollars on her back and driving a beautifully restored 1957 Thunderbird convertible (for which my own mama would sell ME [but only to the nicest people]), although I suppose it is possible, theoretically, in the Land of the Seriously Deluded, that the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell’s clothes and the car were borrowed and she actually returned them to the borrowee that very morning in exchange for her hairshirt and pack mule.

Elizabeth Anna's sickroom

Elizabeth Anna's sickroom

Well, we were not questioning the tragedies she spoke of, which are all too real, but after we left the church, Sister Alma Rose was mostly concerned about Elizabeth Anna, who in her youth had suffered what I’m told was called at that time a “nervous breakdown,” brought on by guilt starting when she was a little girl, and prolonged by anxiety that caused her to not speak for six months and to be unable to leave her parents’ house for five years, and for THAT story you can read Part 2, because I am done with the recap that I said I was not going to provide in the first place.

Letters to Vietnam

Elizabeth Anna had invited Sister Alma Rose and me to have lunch at the family home, which I had seen only from the outside, but I had prepared myself to be cool and sophisticated and to not gawk at the seriously fabulous interior, where the first thing we saw was a fountain, the kind you want to throw pennies into, which was covered and surrounded with one-inch ceramic tiles, dark blue and shiny, but I did not gawk, I only gaped, which I was not aware of until drool landed on the toes sticking out of my sandals. I estimate that seventy-five thousand oak trees and three hundred thousand ceramic-tile trees gave their lives for the floors and the wainscoting and the bathrooms, et cetera, in that house that was not so much IMPRESSIVE as it was simply BEAUTIFUL but in a COMFORTABLE way that doesn’t make it feel like a museum but rather like a cozy living space that happened to have cost 78 bazillion dollars to build.

Acacia leaves and thorns; photo by Stan Shebs

Acacia leaves and thorns; photo by Stan Shebs

During lunch, which I will not even begin to describe… well… no, I won’t even start…. During lunch, Elizabeth Anna told me that Sister Alma Rose had visited her many times while she was housebound, and I interrupted and said, “I’ll just BET she did,” and Sister Alma Rose gave me a Look but Elizabeth Anna just laughed, and went on to say that Sister Alma Rose had told her (which you will know if you know anything about Sister Alma Rose) that every tiny leaf in the universe is necessary and has a purpose, and the tiny leaf is not asked to be a rock or a stream but to do its necessary Leaf Job, and that it is the same with people, and that we must try to find where our Talents and Desires and the Needs of the Universe (which, Sister Alma Rose pointed out, is the same thing as the Will of God, though I am not sure what the antecedent of which is) coincide, so that some people are saxophone players and delight themselves and other people that way, and some people are called to serve the Indigenous People in the Amazon rainforest, and if that is their calling you could not pry them away with, um, whatever large things are out there that are used to pry people away from their calling.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

While Elizabeth Anna was recovering at home, she started writing letters to men and women serving in Vietnam, because the war was going on at that time, and she wrote thousands of letters, she lost count at two thousand, but I don’t mean to say that she wrote to thousands of different people, because many of the letters were sent in reply to those she received, and over and over again the writers told her how much her letters meant to them, that her letters were all they had to look forward to, and it was the knowledge that she was meeting a need AND doing something deeply satisfying that, more than anything else, made it possible for her to think that it was all right for her to be taking up space in the world, breathing air, eating paté, and so forth, and I am joking about the paté, but I was going to say, before I became enamored of my own rapierlike wit, that Elizabeth Anna received several proposals of marriage, all of which she regretfully (as she wrote to her correspondents) declined, because she did not plan ever to marry, and she never has.

A G.I. in Vietnam

A G.I. in Vietnam

Her parents worried that Elizabeth Anna might be plunged back into her depression when, as was inevitable, some of her correspondents were killed, but her Trained Psychiatric Nurse, wonderful Eleanor, told them that it was more likely that Elizabeth Anna would be happy that she was able to help them while they were living, which indeed turned out to be the case, and then Elizabeth Anna wrote letters to their families. Elizabeth Anna told us that sometimes she knew that someone had died, because that person had written regularly and then suddenly stopped, but more often the people whom Elizabeth Anna wrote to had asked a buddy to be sure to write to Elizabeth Anna if  “something should happen” because they wanted her to know that they loved her, in the way that you can love someone who has shared her life with you in letters and has let you share your life with her, and more often than not the “buddy” became Elizabeth Anna’s correspondent.

After the war, people continued to write to her, but she told us she was glad when the letters stopped, because it usually meant that the person had resumed “a meaningful life” back at home, though not always, so Elizabeth Anna always sort of checked in on those who stopped writing to make sure that they weren’t suffering from what we now know as PTSD.

Memorial Chapel, Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Memorial Chapel, Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Then, for about three years, Elizabeth Anna and Eleanor traveled, visiting the veterans who had become her pen pals who were having a rough time, making sure they were getting good care, which Elizabeth Anna very often paid for herself, partly as a tribute to Eleanor, who had helped her, Elizabeth Anna, so much during the dark night of her soul; and when Elizabeth Anna showed symptoms of making a veteran’s despair her own, she had Eleanor to remind her of what her “boundaries” were, because, as has been said, Elizabeth Anna would be of no use to anyone if she were once again sitting in her bedroom not speaking and eating nothing but Gerber vanilla baby pudding.

Back into the light

After Elizabeth Anna’s father died, she and her mother and Eleanor went to live in Wales, which was something Elizabeth Anna had always wanted to do, and for a while Elizabeth Anna didn’t do any Good Deeds, at least in a scheduled way, the three of them just traveled, touring castles and having picnics in the wonderfully picturesque Welsh countryside, and hiking, and taking a boat to Ireland, et cetera.

St. David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, Wales

St. David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, Wales

And Eleanor ended up marrying a Welsh gentleman, who was in business with sheep, I mean, of course, that his business had something to do with sheep, and then Elizabeth Anna’s mother died after an illness of just a few weeks, when she was “in hospital,” as they say in the U.K., and for the next five years Elizabeth Anna stayed in that village, just a five-minute walk from Eleanor, and lived in an old cottage and gardened in the summer, and did whatever it is that Welsh people who live in old cottages do to stay warm in the winter, but, summer and winter, Elizabeth Anna volunteered in that hospital, visiting and talking with people of all ages who were going to die. And if they were afraid, Elizabeth Anna told them that there was nothing to fear, because she, herself, had died and had been for a while in a black tunnel where she could not see anything but the dark, and that the Grace of God had pulled her back into the light, which had been there all along, and then she had never known such joy, and it had never left her.

And now I am afraid that Elizabeth Anna will go back to Wales, because she has Eleanor and many other friends there, but I told her while we were eating lunch that, even in Hilltop, home of the complacent middle class, there are people who are suffering the long, dark night of the soul, but that if she decided to go back anyway, could I live in her house?

Elizabeth Anna

Elizabeth Anna

* * *

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I, Fanny

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Will Guilt Make You Good? (cont.)

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Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

GRACE means you’re in a different universe
from where you had been stuck,
when you had no way to get there
on your own.
—Anne Lamott, Plan B

What’s So Bad about Feeling Good, Part 2 of a True Story

Elizabeth Anna

Elizabeth Anna today

Sister Alma Rose’s friend Elizabeth Anna is 65 years old. As I mentioned in “What’s So Bad about Feeling Good, Part 1,” Elizabeth Anna, who has been living in Wales or some place for the past several years, came back to Hilltop last month for a visit, and to decide if she wanted to move into the house outside of Hilltop where she was born and raised, which is a fabulous mansion with servants and poultry and some sheep and cows and lots of horses, not in the mansion, of course, although Elizabeth Anna says that it would have been just fine with her daddy if the horses had lived in the house, because he was a breeder of racehorses, like his daddy, and his daddy before him, et cetera, but he is deceased and so is Elizabeth Anna’s mother…

King Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

King Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

…who was descended from the Welsh noble Owen Tudor, whose wonderful Welsh name was Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwr, of which I am sure the pronunciation is not as silly as it looks, but the important thing about Lord Tudor, or whatever they called him, is…

…he was the grandfather of King Henry VII of England, who was the first Tudor on the throne, and after him came his son, King Henry VIII, he of the six wives, and then Henry died and his heir, a poor, sick little boy whom nobody really cared about because his mother, Jane Seymour, was dead, had to be the king, under the name of Edward VI, while powerful men ran the show and otherwise neglected him, and when he died his half-sister Mary became Queen Mary I, who started out being popular but, unlike her half-sister Elizabeth, Mary didn’t think that she could rule without a king, so she married King Philip II of Spain, and then, of course, she was supposed to have a bunch of strapping sons, but she was unable to do that, and Philip was canoodling with Elizabeth when he wasn’t away fighting in some war, and Mary became bitter and dogmatic, and she was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” because she had hundreds of people burned at the stake for not being Catholic

… and then she died and Henry’s bastard daughter Queen Elizabeth I was crowned and things in England got back to the way they ought to be for the forty-five years or so that she was queen, until she died in 1603, and that, unfortunately, was it for the Tudors.

Catherine_of_Valois

Catherine of Valois

But Elizabeth Anna is not exactly related to the kings and queens, just Owen Tudor, who had children like there was no tomorrow, including but not limited to six children with his secret wife, Catherine of Valois, who was also married to King Henry V of England, and this is the honest truth, but in medieval England that sort of goings-on was just about normal for the aristocratic set, as was the way Owen died, which was being beheaded.

Elizabeth Anna’s burden

Now, here is what Sister Alma Rose told me about Elizabeth Anna, and this is a true story:  She has had a very unhappy life. Her preposterously wealthy parents — who actually lived rather simply themselves, no fancy cruises, no showy diamonds or rubies or furs, and who were also very generous to the poor and suffering — were determined not to spoil this pretty little girl, though she was their only child and though she was growing up on a fabulous estate in a stunning house surrounded by rolling hills on which to ride her horse, Robin, named after Robin Hood, the legendary English outlaw, who, in the 12th century or thereabouts, stole from the rich and gave to the poor, according to folklore. And that maybe ought to have set off warning bells, not Robin Hood, but Elizabeth Anna’s naming her horse after him.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian

Robin Hood and Maid Marian

“Her folks taught her to be generous and to share,” Sister Alma Rose recalled, “and she was such a serious, conscientious little thing, she was always inviting the poor children of Hilltop to her house and stuffing them full of homemade bread and muffins and cream-cheese pie her mama fixed, and giving the little girls her pretty dresses and her dolls. And, Fanny, don’t y’all know that one day her mama heard Elizabeth Anna weeping piteously, and she asked what was the trouble all about, and Elizabeth Anna said, first off, that she, Elizabeth Anna, was the most selfish girl ever born and Jesus must hate her because she would never let the children ride her horse, Robin, and the other thing she was sad about was, she said, that she had given practically everything she had to the poor children until she was literally wearing the same too-small dress to school every day, but the little girls never wore the clothes she gave them and they still lived in their poor falling-down houses and they still weren’t getting enough to eat and Elizabeth Anna didn’t know what to do. And, Fanny, I have to tell you, a jealous, spiteful woman in her church, whom I went and had a chat with when I found out what she done, was just making everything worse, and Elizabeth Anna always came out of Sunday school trying to hide her tears.

Children in India, from www.colorado.edu

Children in India, from http://www.colorado.edu

“She told her mama that in the Sunday school class, her teacher was unkind to Elizabeth Anna because she was a little rich girl and she should be ashamed of being wealthy when children were naked and starving all over the world and here was Elizabeth Anna with her mansion and her horses and her rich parents who could give her everything she wanted.

‘Somebody should have helped

“This was a child who tried to take all the troubles of the world on her little shoulders at the cost of her own joy, and somebody should have helped her long before they did. But folks looked at her and all they saw was a little girl who could have anything that money could buy.

Mississippi Freedom Summer, from w3.iac.net

Mississippi Freedom Summer, from w3.iac.net

“Of course, coming of age in the 1960s, as Elizabeth Anna did, she was ripe for recruitment into the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, and she was beaten and arrested more than once trying to help black folks register to vote, and her mama and daddy was so proud of her, not understanding. Because it was a wonderful thing that was done that summer, but Elizabeth Anna never should have been part of it, because she wasn’t strong. All she did was she got more and more depressed. She looked around and saw the pitiful way that many folks lived, and she felt like however hard she worked and however much she gave, it would never be enough. She told me it seemed like every time she did something to help one poor, desperate soul, ten more sprang up in their place.

Elizabeth Anna's sunroom

Elizabeth Anna's solarium

“And at the end of that summer Elizabeth Anna’s mama and daddy got a phone call saying that poor Elizabeth Anna had tried to kill herself with pills, which nobody knew where she got them, but somebody had found her passed out on the floor of where she and a bunch of kids was living, and got her to the hospital, and as soon as she was out of danger her dear mama and daddy took her home. They moved her bed into the big solarium, which was windows on three sides, and they filled the room with ferns and Elizabeth Anna’s pretty furniture and all her books, and that was where Elizabeth Anna lived for the next five years, with a psychiatric nurse called Eleanor, who was an angel if there ever was one, staying with her.”

‘Suffering is suffering’

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

Sister Alma Rose told me that for the first six months Elizabeth Anna didn’t say a word. She just sat in her chair, dressed in a beautiful old-fashioned white cotton nightie, looking out the window while Eleanor washed her and braided her hair and talked to her as if Elizabeth Anna were paying attention, which she might or might not have been. And sometimes Eleanor would say things like, “How much good would you be doing in the world if you had died? And look at you now, as sick with guilt as you’ve made yourself, could you even take a pen in your hand and write one single letter to a soldier in Vietnam? Or serve one single meal in a soup kitchen?”

Eleanor had her own pretty bedroom right beside the solarium. She told Elizabeth Anna’s mama that she, Eleanor, had been a social worker and she had loved the work, having, she said, “a stronger sense of who I was than that sad little girl in there ever had” (gesturing to the solarium) and being “called to the job out of love and not out of guilt.

Vignettes of Vietnam, epmediagroup.com

Vignettes of Vietnam, epmediagroup.com

“I quit because the bureaucrats and the regulations and the paperwork kept me from doing my real job,” Eleanor said, and then she went to school to become a psychiatric nurse, “and that was a calling too.

“Suffering is suffering,” Eleanor said, “whether the sufferer is rich or poor or black or white.”

After a year or so back home, Elizabeth Anna, who now says she rose from the dead by a miracle of God’s grace alone, because she sure couldn’t help herself — Elizabeth Anna asked Eleanor if she could find out about someone serving in Vietnam who wasn’t getting any mail, and Eleanor did, and that was the first of thousands of letters that Elizabeth Anna wrote to men and woman in uniform.

To be continued…

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

Lost and Found

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Hafez (or Hafiz) the Persian

Hafez (or Hafiz) the Persian

You are healed when you can say to yourself, “I matter, I belong, I am worthy, I am safe, I can express myself, I am loved. —Deepak Chopra, The Deeper Wound: Recovering the Soul from Fear and Suffering, 100 Days of Healing

While I am sleeping, you silently carry off all my suffering and my sordid past in your beautiful hands. —Hafiz

The Suicide Note

God is good,” says Pastor Alexis.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Sister Alma Rose’s dear friend Pastor Alexis got ordained as a minister online and started her own church, Pilgrim Chapel, five years ago. Anybody can go there, it doesn’t matter what religion they are or what they believe about God.

Before she became a minister, Pastor Alexis thought constantly about suicide. “I once was lost,” she says with a grin, “but now I’m found.”

She wrote a long suicide note ahead of time, in case she ever did take the plunge, so to speak. This (below) is it… in all its sadness and beauty….

My name is Alexis, and I am sitting on the balcony of my apartment, twenty-three stories above a narrow red-brick street in a quiet residential neighborhood. My art-deco-era building is an anomaly among the tidy old frame and stucco houses with their privet hedges and children’s swing sets.

The wall that encloses my balcony is three feet high and about eighteen inches wide. I have sat on the wall many times, next to the pots of thriving geraniums and trailing lime-green ivy, my bare legs and feet dangling — half-hoping, half-fearing that someone will come along and give me a small shove. That’s all it would take: just a slight, accidental bump. I believe in reincarnation, and I am ready to be a child again.But I always swing my legs back over the wall, plant my feet on the warm concrete, sit at the pretty white wicker table, and drink the lemonade I have brought out in a large Thermos. I have remembered that there is something left undone. Perhaps I have not dusted, or finished a crossword puzzle, or called my niece this week. If my life is going to end, I want what I leave behind to be tidy.

I am 59 years old, and I am superfluous.

* * *

I had what most people would consider a happy childhood in a happy home. My parents were proud of me (I was an eager learner) and told me I could be anything I wanted to be – a minister, a U.S. senator, an arc welder — anything, as long as it made me happy. They were warm and affectionate, and I knew that I was loved.

That’s the way I see it when I look back, but there’s a layer of fear, like gray film, over it, as if I’m looking outside through a screen door. The fear began with my mother’s “nervous breakdowns” and my dad’s frequent business trips… with the times Mom spent a couple of weeks in the hospital, or when she’d check into a hotel for the sole purpose of drinking herself as near to death as she dared to go. She was sick for two years, when I was 4 and 5.

Sometimes, when Dad was out of town and Mom was sitting in the darkened living room, in the overstuffed chair, her legs splayed on the ottoman… drinking red wine, which turned her tongue and lips blue and carried her into oblivion… I pulled a blanket and a pillow out of the linen cupboard on the second-floor landing, dragged them downstairs and into the living room, covered Mom with the blanket, and tried to arrange her limp torso so that her head rested on the pillow. Then I put her cigarettes and lighter in a kitchen cabinet, so that she wouldn’t burn the house down.

I didn’t know that Mom drank because my sister had a serious heart condition and might die any minute, although she never did… and because my brother had barely survived polio… and because Mom’s own mother had died of pernicious anemia while Mom, too, was ill with polio… and because Dad traveled so much and was unavailable to share all the burdens. I just knew that I felt unprotected when Mom binged and Dad was out of town.

fcc_outsideI started going to the Presbyterian church two blocks away, alone, when I was 5 — drawn, I think, by the glorious music and the grand old sanctuary with its elaborately carved oak and its sparkling, intricate stained-glass windows, and also by the reassurance of ritual and continuity. The Sunday-school teachers, on the other hand, made Jesus sound like a jail warden, and I was afraid of him, and of going to Hell. But when he came to me in dreams, he wore Levi’s and a plaid shirt, and he was kind and comforting.

One midsummer evening, my mother announced at the dinner table that she was under doctor’s orders to quit drinking. She smiled broadly, dazzlingly, and said, “I have had my last drink.” It was the happiest day of my life.

It lasted for a few months, this feeling of security, this belief in happy endings, this euphoria. And then, early one Sunday morning, after I had spent the night at my cousin Lucy’s house, Aunt Cecily dropped me off on her way to church. She watched as I climbed the forty-seven steps to the big tile-floored front porch, and she waved goodbye as I pushed open the gleaming mahogany door, which was never locked.

I closed the door and inhaled a miasma of cigarette smoke laced with stale beer and something ripe and pungent. I am sure that my heart stopped, and that when it started beating again I wanted more than anything to turn around, go back out the door, and run. Anywhere. Just away from there. Away from what I might find when I turned the corner into the living room.

In the end, there was nothing else to do, so I stepped into the living room and all but tripped over Mom’s feet. She was passed out, face down, on the ottoman, her toothpick legs sticking out on one side, her head and arms dangling from the other side, a pool of vomit between her hands where they brushed the floor.

Feelings whose names I didn’t know suffocated me: revulsion, disappointment, panic, and something worse. I think of it now, perhaps melodramatically, as a loss of innocence.

That summer morning, I had no time to rage or mourn. I knew that my older brother and sister would be of no help; they were still asleep, and in any case they were inured to Mom’s binges. Dad was somewhere in western Nebraska doing a bank audit. I was on my own.

Something in me pitied my mother and was terrified. When I tried to wake her, she rolled over onto the floor. Her arm landed in the vomit, which splashed onto my feet and my white cotton pants, covering most of one leg.

Dr. Prentice, Mom’s psychiatrist, lived two doors away with Mrs. Prentice and their son, Frankie, who was my best friend. I ran out of our house through the back door, up the alley, through the Prentices’ back yard, and into their kitchen. Dr. and Mrs. Prentice were sitting at their white-enamel table, reading the Sunday paper and drinking coffee. Vomit dripped off my pants onto the shiny red linoleum floor. I stood there panting, unable to speak.

“Is something wrong with your mom?” Dr. Prentice asked gently. I just nodded, and he got up, kissed the top of my head, and left the room. Mrs. Prentice took me upstairs and helped me wash my feet and gave me a clean pair of Frankie’s pants to wear. She said that I could play in the guest room until Frankie woke up and that I could eat lunch there and play with Frankie all day. I looked out one of the guest-room windows and watched Dr. Prentice, carrying his black doctor bag, walk across the front yard and down the street toward our house.

An old-fashioned kitchen on display in Dover, Delaware

An old-fashioned kitchen on display in Dover, Delaware

Late that afternoon, Dad came to the Prentices’ to pick me up. Mom was in the hospital, he said. Thelma, our housekeeper, would stay with us until Mom came home. Thelma had worked two days a week for us since I was an infant. She was big and brown and solid and safe. She liked to refer to herself as my mammy. That’s the way things were back then.

Secretly I hoped that Mom would stay in the hospital forever. With Thelma, there were cheerfulness and peace and order. She ironed our sheets, and they felt smooth and smelled wonderful. She baked homemade bread and sweet-potato pie. My clothes were always clean and pressed and folded neatly in my dresser drawer. Thelma vacuumed and dusted, and she scrubbed the blue-linoleum kitchen floor and waxed it by hand, then polished it until it shone. And in the evenings, she sat me on her ample lap and held me tight and told true stories that her grandmother had told her about life in the Old South.

Mom was in the hospital for a month, and when she came home she’d gained a few pounds and her cheeks had some color that had been missing before. She had medicine she could take if she felt overwhelmed, but she didn’t use it very often. I knew, because when she had taken the medicine she slept late and we had to fix our own breakfast. She didn’t quit drinking, but she kept to her daily limit of two glasses of wine. Dad went to work at a different CPA firm, where the head partner promised that there would be no out-of-town travel.

At last, when I was about to start school, there was beginning to be an atmosphere of normalcy and predictability in our home. I buried my fear, but it never went away. I was always steeling myself against the next disappointment.

Our house was a gathering place, as some houses tend to be and no one is sure why. Mom enjoyed a houseful of kids — my sister’s friends, my brother’s, mine. Everyone loved her. She had become strong and healthy and competent. And still I was afraid.

It wasn’t until I was a wife and mother myself that I understood Mom’s despair. When I suffered my own breakdown at 22, Dr. Prentice and Mom helped me through it. Some time during my high-school years, Mom had become my hero, my role model. Dad had always been my rock.

Once, when I was in my early 20s, I heard Mom tell Aunt Cecily that, if anything happened to Dad, she knew that I would take care of her. I never had to. Mom died of a stroke when she was 59. Dad had a fatal heart attack five years later.

* * *

I married Lou when I was 24, four years before Mom died. Together Lou and I raised three happy, healthy children. Lou was a philanderer, and I knew it, but he was also a wise and loving father and we made a fine parenting team. We needed each other for that, and the kids needed us both, and, for me, that was enough.

Lou died of cancer five years ago, and I grieved. The children are married, with families and careers. They are scattered throughout the country, and I see them twice a year. My grandchildren are always shy with me at first; they don’t know me, and they certainly don’t need me.

I am 59 years old, and I am superfluous.

lemonadeAlmost every day I take my coffee or my lemonade onto the balcony. I sit on the little wall and wonder, with some detachment, what it would be like to just push off with my feet and go sailing into the air. Maybe tomorrow, I think. Today I need to launder the bedding.

* * *

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